PARIS — The head of France's DCRI counterespionage agency was handed preliminary charges Monday in a probe into allegations of spying on journalists at the daily "Le Monde," his attorney said.
Patrick Maisonneuve said the preliminary charges against Bernard Squarcini include "violating secret correspondence" and "unlawfully collecting data."
Under French law, preliminary charges allow magistrates to continue investigating before determining whether to send the case to trial.
The probe stems from a suit filed by "Le Monde" last year. The newspaper alleged the office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked the DCRI to identify a journalist's source and stop leaks in a scandal surrounding L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, Europe's wealthiest woman.
Sarkozy's office has denied the accusations.
The law on protecting journalists' sources forms a pillar of French media freedom.
Maisonneuve said Squarcini has ruled out resigning from the DCRI, which he has headed since its creation in 2007 in a merger of the DST counterterrorism service and the RG police surveillance agency.
The opposition Socialists' newly minted presidential candidate, Francois Hollande, called on Squarcini to resign immediately.
"Can you imagine, the head of counterespionage spying on journalists or public servants?" Hollande said in an interview on TF1 channel's nightly newscast. "I'm shocked the interior minister hasn't already called for Mr. Squarcini's resignation."
Speaking on France-2 television, Prime Minister Francois Fillon stressed that being handed initial charges is not tantamount to being convicted on them. He said the principle of presumption of innocence would be upheld, adding that only after the case runs its course will the government make a decision about Squarcini's fate.
Attorney Maisonneuve added that the DCRI's No. 2 also has been questioned in the probe. The director general of France's national police, Frederic Pechenard, is also expected to be heard by investigating magistrate Sylvia Zimmermann in the coming days.